“The Orlando area is the most gay-friendly place in the entire world,” Celso Olaguibel, from Miami, yelled out while perched on the balcony of the train station overlooking a red-shirt-dominated Main Street at the Magic Kingdom.
On June 1, the Magic Kingdom and its sister parks saw thousands of people sporting red and all shades and hues thereof in support of LGBT pride, and a large contingent of straight people and families donned red in unity. Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan explained that while she walked around the park hand in hand with her girlfriend, “straight families actually approached us and said they were disappointed they did not know to wear red.”
As society often does, we have changed as a people since the first gay days of 1991, which saw protest and inspired an unsuccessful boycott of Walt Disney World. It seems the time has come for the LGBT community and Central Florida is right out in front.
That’s not to say that there weren’t anti-gay forces at work during Gay Days weekend. The Florida Family Association once again “warned” families about Gay Day by advertising it on a banner pulled by a biplane near Walt Disney World. The simple banner declared: “Warning: Gay Day at Disney 6/1″ and cost the conservative group $16,400, according to an invoice obtained by Watermark.
How else would a so-called Christian organization spend its money? Feeding the homeless? Clothing children? Nah—expressing concern over a gathering of gay people at a theme park seemed the best use of resources for the organization.
The FFA is claiming victory in their “Warning” on its website.
But our eyes on the ground June 1 at the Magic Kingdom saw a large contingent of gay families, both gay and lesbian couples with children and a few single gay parents and supportive allies. The Garrell moms, Candy and Angela, from Arkansas, flew to Orlando for the weekend with their two children, Riley and Connor, to take advantage of Orlando’s openness and acceptance and to help the children understand their family was just like everyone else’s. Becoming somewhat emotional, Candy Garrell asked to speak off to the side and explained that “this is the first time we have all been here as a family and we have felt so welcome and accepted that it’s incredible.” Their two children smiled wide and waved when asked how they liked Walt Disney World.
Josh Wright, 20, from Scottsboro, Ala., a rural town of under 15,000 people, was amazed at the sheer number of LGBT people in one place.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen this amount of gay people in one place and I can actually be myself,” he said. “I feel like I belong.”
While his family in Alabama is accepting of his sexuality, Wright appreciated being released from the chains of a false public identity. Wright’s experience reflects the original intent in 1991 for Gay Day that has now progressed to allowing the same for visiting gay families and their children.
Orlando, while being the top tourist destination in the country according to Forbes.com, saw an increase in international gay guests as well at this year’s event. Christian Smith, from London, explained that the area’s known attitude for open acceptance prompted his visit.
“It’s my first time here and I’m definitely coming back,” Smith said, a statement that can only please area businesses as international travelers spend on average five times as much as their domestic counterparts, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
It was also no surprise to many of the park visitors that Orlando passed domestic spouse protections by a unanimous vote last year and has a planned rally for marriage equality in anticipation of the pending United States Supreme Court decisions.
While Gay Day has always seen a large contingent of LGBT individuals and couples, 2013 saw a large and growing appearance of our heterosexual counterparts coming out in support. Mike Czech, of Orlando, wore a red shirt saying
“Straight but not narrow,” and explained, “We don’t care around here if you’re gay or straight, what difference does it make?”
Czech’s friend, Kirk Endemann, said he attends every Gay Day because it’s his family reunion with the national and international LGBT visitors who flock to the area.
A fizzled Lesbian Express
The only bit of negative news from June 1′s Gay Day fizzled its way onto the tracks at the Lesbian Express, the yearly 1 p.m. tradition for the lesbian community to ride around the park aboard a Disney locomotive. For an unknown reason, the tradition has either died out or took the year off. Crystal Bard, Janine Rocca, and Samantha Linder, all of Sarasota, were among the 10 people to board the Lesbian Express, but the low numbers on the train didn’t dampen their spirits.
“The reason we came over here was because this area is so free and accepting, and we’re having a great time,” Rocca said.
The same sentiment rippled from other Florida residents from Tallahassee to Miami, such as Jacksonville partners Kathy Korpics and Charlene Liberty.
“It’s way more open and accepting here than Jacksonville,” Korpics said. “And it’s a really fun place to be!”
Annetta LaPointe, who moved to the area with her partner eight years ago from New England, said, “Orlando is by far the most gay-friendly place we’ve ever lived.”
Waves of success
While Gay Day is the focus of many families who come to Orlando in June, there is much more to the weekend. Gay Days has extended the tradition into several days, and other groups have also made the first weekend in June the place to be.
Larger-than-usual crowds attended the Saturday afternoon pool party at the Parliament House, and the evening pool party hosted by Chi Chi LaRue at the Gay Days host hotel. Despite the overwhelming attendance, virtually no one was actually in the pool.
The same thing could be said of the May 31 late-evening/post-Tidal Wave party at the Tidal Wave host hotel, but considering the majority of those attendees had spent the previous few hours in the slides and pools of Wet ‘N’ Wild, it was understandable.
Speaking of Tidal Wave, the event’s new hotel, Holiday Inn, welcomed the men with open arms and it was announced it would be the host hotel of Tidal Wave 2014.
Approximately 1,000 attended the actual Tidal Wave party at Wet ‘N’ Wild Friday night and plans for next year reportedly include increased marketing on the West Coast (of the U.S.).
Former Go-Go’s Lead Singer Belinda Carlisle entertained the masses at the Parliament House early Sunday morning, June 2, with some of her chart-topping hits. Carlisle revisited the 1980s with “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “We Got the Beat” and gold record “Vacation” from her days with the all-female band.
Comedienne Judy Tenuta burst onstage at the Doubletree by Hilton on the night of June 1 wearing a silver glitter, animal print pantsuit, white boa, red rose in her hair and carrying her signature accordion. She told One Million Moms (another anti-gay protest group) to “Deal with it, bitches!” and shrieked her way through an interactive show, pulling people on stage to dance and even marrying two gay men with a “Certificate of Marriage in Judyism.”
Hundreds of women donned green, yellow and red glow necklaces and packed Ember in Downtown Orlando for the annual “Traffic Jam” party hosted by Phish Phest on May 30. Named for the signal lights each woman wears (green for available, yellow for proceed with caution and red for taken), the event was moved from Funky Monkey at Pointe Orlando in 2012. The decision was a good one, said Phish Phest co-founder Sue-Bee Laginess, who estimates more than 600 people attended the event including “LezBros,” the name given to the men who partied with them.
“This event was bigger and better than last year,” Laginess said. “We were 100% pleased.”
DJ Pat Pat headlined “Boogie in Wonderland,” a party produced by Girls in Wonderland at the House of Blues on June 1. VIPs sipped drinks at an open bar and watched a live auction that featured a $5,000 cruise. Beforehand, Fortune Feimster of Chelsea Lately had people laughing out loud during Laugh Out Loud, her 90-minute show in the ballroom of the Sheraton Lake Buena Visit Resort that night. The next morning, June 2, women lined up for a bikini contest for the Pumps versus Pants Pool Party at the Sheraton.
A packed house
The Doubletree by Hilton once again served as the host hotel for GayDayS.com, with overflow guests staying at the Best Western across the street.
Many attending the Gay Days pool party at the Double Tree were impressed by the wrist bands that allowed guests to purchase drinks and food poolside without digging for cash or credit cards. The bands could be pre-loaded with funds and simply scanned when a purchase was made.
Preliminary reports from Gay Days Inc. indicate that 2013 offered a growth spurt to the annual event. One press release reported a 6% increase in the number of attendees at all venues in central Florida that hosted Gay Days events. The same release said an estimated 170,000 people participated in Gay Days activities, which is 10,000 more than the previous record.
Organizers are already making promises for next year. They’ve promised to bring back an option that had sailed away: a GayDayS.com-hosted cruise ahead of Gay Days 2014.
Susan Clary, Jamie Hyman, Kirk Hartlage and Steve Blanchard contributed to this report.